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New EHRC Chief appointed despite criticism over 'vested interests'

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The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has steam-rolled David Isaac’s appointment as the new Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), despite criticism that he had "vested interests".

Nicky Morgan had come under fire from both the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the Women and Equalities Committee last month, both of whom wrote to her warning of a potential conflict of interest, because Mr Isaac’s legal firm carries out "significant work for the government".

David Isaac has now stated in a letter that he will no longer receive money from his legal firm or advise government clients while he acts as the EHRC head.

Despite this apparent resolution of conflict of interest, Christian Concern's Chief Executive, Andrea Williams believes another conflict of interest exists as Mr Isaac is a former head of the LGBT pressure group Stonewall. 

'Vested interests'

Harriet Harman MP, the JCHR Chair, said last month that there was "obviously a conflict of interest", because the EHRC often takes up cases against the government.

She went on:

"The lion's share of his income will be coming from an organisation that has a vested interest. As they say, 'he who pays the piper calls the tune'."

During Mr Isaac's scrutiny hearing, the former Chief Justice Lord Woolf asked how Mr Isaac could prevent his legal work from influencing his position as the new EHRC chief:

"Do you think there is any risk that that person, knowing that you are a partner of the sort you are, would say, 'I know why I have not been helped by the commission: it is because the chairman is actually in a firm of solicitors, and, directly or indirectly, his earnings from that firm are going to be affected by the amount of work the firm gets from the very department of government that he wants the commission to bring an action against'?"

According to Lord Woolf, this would be a difficult situation to "redress".

In a letter to Harriet Harman dated 26 April, Mr Isaac said:

"[M]y remuneration as an equity partner at Pinsent Masons will exclude any share of profits made by the firm from work for Government Departments, agencies or arm’s length bodies.

"I should also clarify my position in relation to a point made by the Chief Executive of the Commission in her letter of 15 April to me. If appointed I will cease to be involved in advising government clients of Pinsent Masons in all aspects of that work.

"Put simply, for the duration of my appointment to Chair of the EHRC, neither my work nor my remuneration would in any way depend upon Pinsent Masons’ involvement with government."

'Complete lack of confidence' in EHRC's impartiality

Yet added to concerns about a conflict of interest are questions as to David Isaac's impartiality, given his history of promoting the LGBT agenda, particularly through his role as Chair of Stonewall.

In a letter to Nicky Morgan expressing these concerns in March, Andrea Williams described Isaac's nomination as an "absurdity".

Referring to his previous position at Stonewall, she stated:

"Appointing a Commission Chair who previously led a pressure group with such an agenda would lead to a complete lack of confidence in the impartiality of the Commission from Government."

'Hierarchy of rights'

She continued by outlining how his appointment could further remove protections for religious freedom.

"The Equality Act 2010 outlines the rights of protected groups but does not address the question of how competing interests are to be 'balanced' when conflicts arise. In this way, it has created a hierarchy of rights.

"Poor drafting has resulted in the rights of those who identify as homosexual being consistently privileged over the rights of Christians, particularly with regards to historic views on marriage, family and sexual ethics.

"The Commission has failed to protect adequately the freedoms of Christians - and others who hold similar views - to express in the public square such historic and until very recently considered mainstream views. Indeed, the Commission increasingly encouraging the privatisation of the Christian faith and Judeo-Christian values and opinions more generally." 

Related Links: 
Education Secretary criticised for appointing new EHRC chief with 'vested interests'  
Statement in response to the proposed appointment of the EHRC Chair  
Correspondance from David Isaac regarding his role at his legal firm (Parliament)